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Will Keeps discusses January shooting, reopening Starts Right Here in sit-down interview

“That situation is a reason why we keep going,” Keeps said. “It's not the reason why we stop, it's the reason why we keep fighting."

DES MOINES, Iowa — At-risk high schoolers in Des Moines could return to an alternative education program as soon as next week amid enhanced security, a month after a shooting killed two of their classmates, the program's founder said Friday.

Will Keeps, who founded Starts Right Here, was shot in the hip and right hand as he tried to intervene to stop the violence. Although he's still recovering, he says the Jan. 23 shooting left him more motivated to resume his work with teens who dropped out or were suspended from traditional schools.

When students return, however, there will be armed guards and metal detectors.

“Safety is number one," Keeps said.

The students who died were Gionni Dameron, 18, and Rashad Carr, 16. Police allege that student Preston Walls, 18, fired the shots before fleeing in a car driven by Bravon Michael Tukes, 19. 

Walls and Tukes, both of Des Moines, were each charged with two counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted murder and one count of criminal gang participation. They are being held in jail with bail set at $2.5 million for each.

Keeps, an activist and rapper whose given name is Will Holmes, spoke with reporters about the shooting for the first time. Keeps must use a walker and has a bright orange cast on his right hand, but said he's feeling better physically.

"You know, the first three weeks was very, very mentally and physically painful," Keeps told Local 5's Stephanie Angleson. "But I'm just healing, and I'm mentally strong, and I'm ready to keep moving."

WATCH: Full interview with Will Keeps

Still, he finds it nearly impossible not to dwell on what happened.

“I can vividly see what happened every time I close my eyes,” Keeps said. “I have to fight and tell myself, ‘Think of something else.’”

Most painful, Keeps said, is thinking about the students killed and the student now facing a charge that could keep him in prison for the rest of his life. Keeps noted that Walls was only days away from graduating high school.

Keeps, who was in a gang as a teen growing up in Chicago before moving to Des Moines and later starting the school, said the program focuses on helping students gain patience and see a future for themselves.

“You had three young men who actually were doing better, and that street life, that street mindset took it all away,” he said. “I lost three kids that day.”

Starts Right Here has a contract to work with Des Moines schools students, typically 40 at a time. Keeps said since 2019, 31 students enrolled in the program have graduated from high school.

In the wake of the shootings, students have been able to continue their education at another school district site, but Keeps said they and their parents are eager for Starts Right Here to reopen.

“That situation is a reason why we keep going,” Keeps said. “It's not the reason why we stop, it's the reason why we keep fighting, because we don't want that type of situation to happen again.”

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